It’s an almost unbelievable number. With the Toronto Maple Leafs buying out defenceman Tim Gleason on Monday afternoon, the franchise has now spent $31.5-million on six buyouts since 2008, the equivalent of about 13 players earning a league-average salary.
Only the Tampa Bay Lightning has spent more, thanks mainly to Vincent Lecavalier’s monster buyout last year. And only the New Jersey Devils have bought out more players – seven, though at relatively low cost.
On average, the other 29 NHL teams have dedicated $9-million over the last seven summers to pay players to not to play for them. That’s less than one-third of what the Leafs gave Gleason, Mikhail Grabovski, Mike Komisarek, Colby Armstrong, Darcy Tucker and Andrew Raycroft to go away.
But that money’s long gone. The bigger concern is that Toronto may be poised to do it all over again.
A lot of the Leafs mistakes over the years have come around July 1. That was the date they signed Komisarek and Armstrong, and it was around this time a year ago that they added David Clarkson’s nearly buyout-proof seven-year deal.
All those buyouts have happened under different managers – Cliff Fletcher followed by Brian Burke and then Dave Nonis – but there has been a shared tendency to misidentify talent and the roster’s issues, and commit too many contract years at too many dollars.
Whether or not the Leafs do so again on Tuesday remains to be seen, but there are already indications that bold moves are coming in the next few days.
Talks continue with free agent centre Dave Bolland, who wants a long-term deal in the $5-million range that would be very rich for a player who likely slots in as a third-line centre.
Trade talks were also into the late stages with the Montreal Canadiens for defenceman Josh Gorges, although he has been unwilling to waive his no-trade clause to go to Toronto.
The Leafs other free-agent and trade targets all appear to follow a similar theme: They’re experienced, they’re likely expensive and they’re moving out of their primes. They fit a formula for a win-now mentality, which is odd given where the Leafs fortunes currently lie.
They’ve got a good young goaltender in Jonathan Bernier, a top scorer in Phil Kessel and some promising youth in Jake Gardiner, Morgan Rielly and Nazem Kadri, but no one would mistake this team for a contender.
In fact, their 22nd-place finish last year was probably exactly appropriate for their talents – at least playing the style they have under Randy Carlyle.
The priority should be to build around that cast in a way that the entire group can hit its peak together, searching for 20-something players with potential rather than committing term and dollars to veterans who may be slowing down.
There’s a stylistic aspect to all this, too. The Leafs added defenceman Roman Polak at the expense of Carl Gunnarsson over the weekend in a bid to add character, leadership and be better defensively. But the St. Louis Blues – one of the best teams in the league – were more concerned with Polak’s inability to move the puck effectively, and view Gunnarsson as a better top-four defenceman.
That kind of contrary thinking isn’t new. Toronto’s focus in general this off-season is on off-ice factors and intangibles – which the Leafs blame for last year’s late-season collapse. But they have missed the problems with the roster if they think more shot blockers and dressing room good guys are the answer.
They’ve been down that path for years – with Komisarek, with Jeff Finger, with Gleason, Clarkson, Armstrong, Mark Fraser, etc. – and it hasn’t changed the culture, or made the Leafs better.
It’s simply made a lot of them rich – both when they played for the Leafs and, in some cases, when they didn’t.